Exactly twelve years ago, after witnessing the downfall of autocrats in both Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrainis were inspired to begin their own chapter of the Arab uprisings. The pro-democracy movement that took to the streets on Feb. 14, 2011 challenged over two centuries of despotic rule by the Al Khalifa monarchy, which ran the state as their own family business, holding all power and wealth in their hands.
The uprising in Bahrain was among the most popular in terms of participation of the entire Arab Spring, with more than 150,000 protesters taking to the streets at its peak to demand democratic change in a country with a population of less than 600,000 Bahraini citizens. One quarter of the entire population participated in the protests. This popular outcry represented the most serious threat to the Al Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain's modern history.
And yet it has since been forgotten by much of the outside world. Bahrain's uprising, calling for respect for human and democratic rights in the kingdom, was decidedly inconvenient for the United States, Bahrain's key Western ally, and the West as a whole. Although at the time President Barack Obama was vocally critical of other Arab dictators facing mass protests in the streets, like Mubarak in Egypt, the U.S. took a different position toward Bahrain, which hosts the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy. Geopolitical calculations were deemed to be more important than the wishes of the Bahraini people.
When Bahrain's government met the widespread calls for change with a bloody crackdown by security forces, and then invited in Saudi troops to crush the protest movement, Washington went silent. The White House bought King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's false promises of reform and "dialogue." And as Bahrain's prisons were filled with political dissidents whose torture became the norm, the Obama administration, followed by the Trump and now Biden administrations, stayed quiet. Twelve years on, what began as reprisals against a popular uprising has evolved into a sophisticated and deeply entrenched system of institutionalized repression.
Twelve years on, what began as reprisals against a popular uprising has evolved into a sophisticated and deeply entrenched system of institutionalized repression.
- Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei
Earlier this year, officials at the notorious Jau Prison raided the cells of 14 political prisoners, some of whom claim to have been tortured during this assault. One of them told me that an officer placed his knee on his neck. "Did you see what happened to George Floyd?" the prisoner said, trying to describe what happened next. "That's exactly what happened to me."
The prisoner also named and identified the perpetrators who he said tortured him—one of them a mercenary officer named Jumaa. This is the same officer who tortured me back in 2011 when I was arrested and convicted for taking part in the pro-democracy protests. The message cannot be clearer to me: Torturers are still being rewarded in Bahrain, as they are permitted to remain in their positions and repeatedly abuse prisoners with complete impunity.
The difference on this occasion is that this alleged incident was filmed by the CCTV cameras installed in the prison building, and now there are national oversight bodies in place supposedly mandated by the government to investigate such abuse. Yet the truth is that these bodies do only one job: They whitewash police crimes and blame the victims. Research conducted by my organization, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), has revealed that the British government has allocated at least £13 million to support entities in Bahrain such as these so-called oversight bodies, which have been implicated in torture, the death penalty and covering up violations of international law.
The Al Khalifa dynasty pays close attention to who is in power in Washington, and London, as it manages its domestic repression and international image. For example, Bahrain executed three dissidents in 2017—Shia men whose confessions of killing police officers were widely suspected to have been extracted under torture—during the transition period between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. When Trump gave King Hamad a warm reception during their meeting months later, in Riyadh, the regime proceeded to kill five protesters a mere hours later during a police raid on the hometown of a prominent Shia cleric who was facing deportation after being stripped of his citizenship.
The Biden administration promised a hard line toward the region's autocrats—part of supposedly "putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy"—but there seems to be an exception that applies to close American allies. Oil interests led Biden to fist bump Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince whom Biden had once said turned Saudi Arabia into a "pariah" for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. All Gulf states understand the message this conveyed: the Biden administration, in desperate need of low gas prices at home, will gladly tolerate abusive allies that can keep oil prices down.
Meanwhile, the people of Bahrain continue to suffer from the dark legacy of 2011. This chapter of the country's history has been buried, leaving many people forgotten and stuck behind bars. Just one example is Hassan Mushaima, a 75-year-old pro-democracy leader whose torture was documented by an inquiry commissioned by the king. He is serving a life sentence in Jau Prison for "attempting to overthrow the government," and has been denied medical care despite being in remission from cancer.
These past dozen years have exposed to Bahrainis the extent of the sinister complicity of the United States and the United Kingdom with their oppressors.
- Sayed Ahmed AlWadaei
But although the Bahraini government might act with impunity, it still clearly cares about its international reputation. Just last November, it hosted Pope Francis at a forum for "human coexistence," even though the country's majority Shia population continues to face systematic discrimination under the Sunni monarchy. Next month, Formula 1 will once again open its season in Bahrain, just after its governing body, the FIA, has moved to ban political statements by drivers, in order to save their host countries from embarrassment. Hosting F1 races is part of Bahrain's PR toolkit to sports-wash its bloodstained image.
Later in March, Bahrain will host the next conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of national parliaments, in a blatant attempt to paint a false image of itself as not only having overcome political crisis, but even being a beacon of democracy. The theme of the conference ("Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance") is an insult to all those Bahrainis who have been tortured and abused by this regime—and to the treatment of former MPs, some stripped of their citizenship and subjected to torture, others still in prison, including the leader of the now-dissolved opposition group Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, who is serving a life sentence for bogus charges. Al-Wefaq was once the largest political party in parliament, wining 18 out 40 seats in the 2010 elections.
The Bahraini government has also used its normalization with Israel, which was deeply unpopular in Bahrain, as yet another step to demonstrate its usefulness to Western allies and shield itself from criticism over its human rights record.
Last week, a British High Court quashed Bahrain's attempt to claim diplomatic immunity in order block a lawsuit by two Bahraini activists in the United Kingdom who allege that Bahraini authorities hacked their laptops. It could be a victory for dissidents targeted by the regime's spyware. If this case is carried all the way to Britain's Supreme Court, it would create a new way to hold Bahrain accountable for its reprisals against U.K.-based dissidents.
The aspirations for democratic change in Bahrain have not been completely crushed despite more than a decade of brutal rule since the repression of the popular uprising. But these past dozen years have exposed to Bahrainis the extent of the sinister complicity of the United States and the United Kingdom with their oppressors.